Three authors of books out on Critical Race Theory—Richard Delgado, Aja Martinez, and Victor Ray—discuss the cultural and legal landscape in a post-2020 world. From receiving hate mail, to fielding calls to ban teaching CRT in schools, these authors’ experiences and research offers insight into current debates around teaching race in America.
Lit Hub: You have all recently published books about Critical Race Theory. Right around the time your books came out, white nationalists responded to calls by the previous president and others to destroy the movement. Have you experienced personal backlash from anti-Crit forces on the right?
Richard Delgado: In the early years of the movement, the late eighties and early nineties, I received very little. And that which I did receive was relatively polite and scholarly, as with an article in Stanford Law Review that charged me and other race-crits with undermining rationality and the search for truth and replacing them with stories and personal reflections.
Around the time that the fourth edition of Jean’s and my book went under production, we started receiving a lot of hate mail, most of it from people who had apparently not read the book in any of its editions but knew what they thought about it because Fox News told them so. Some of the hate mail was vicious and personal. One anonymous emailer informed Jean that she was a traitor to the white race for sleeping with me.
Aja Martinez: Similar to Richard, when I was a graduate student starting out with my work as a CRT scholar with a dissertation on CRT’s storytelling methodology, counterstory, the majority of the backlash I received was from liberal academics who said one of two things: 1) “why are you studying race and racism? Obama is President”; or 2) “CRT and counterstory isn’t real/rigorous research.” That’s pretty much the steady resistance and backlash I received for the most of my career.
Everything changed in 2020. My book, Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory was published in May 2020; in September, President Trump issued his “Executive order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping.” This ban effectively shined a national (and even international—I was asked to speak on this topic with Lithuanian Public Radio!) spotlight on CRT and in many ways placed targets on those of us who are identifiable culprits responsible for supposedly pushing CRT’s “different vision of America.” That vision (also supposedly) teaches Americans to hate America.
Another important detail: I accepted a new position at a university in Texas in 2020, so I moved (from New York during COVID!) to a state that was gearing up a legislative attack on CRT.What has communicated to me how different this backlash is though, more than anything before, are the security measures and precautions institutions are taking.
The trolling I have endured since 2020 is like nothing I have ever experienced or ever anticipated I would experience. I receive nasty messages to any and all inboxes individuals can track down: social media, email (institutional and personal), and professional work profiles like LinkedIn and Academia.edu.
I’ve been called a liar, an indoctrinator, and told I should be ashamed of myself for the harm I inflict on children (college-aged adults) that I teach. I’ve even experienced the heartbreak of dissolution of personal relationships over attacks on CRT–I was verbally attacked over the phone (on Christmas morning!) by the new boyfriend of a person who I thought was a trusted friend and white ally.
These are strange times. What has communicated to me how different this backlash is though, more than anything before are the security measures and precautions institutions are taking. When I give invited lectures on CRT in-person, it has now become common practice for hosting organizations to hire security for my events and to have an official (campus police or an administrator) brief me before the event about what the plan will be to get me out of the building and to safety if the trolls show up and things go south. And if there’s one thing I can count on these days it’s that the trolls will show up.
Victor Ray: For years, I’ve been targeted for harassment by a deeply disturbed individual. This ongoing harassment was augmented by a short spate of hate mail once the book came out. The committed harassment regularly includes horrendous violent threats against me, my family, and my extended social network. This harassment isn’t necessarily because of my work, but I don’t think it can be separated from the work because the harasser regularly targets scholars who work in areas, like critical race theory, that some mainstream folks also attack.
I don’t know if the targeted harassment necessarily increased since the book came out because it’s been so constant for so long. But I have received a slight uptick in nasty messages from unhinged racists who don’t like hearing the truth about this country. I’ve also had to have security at public events. This is increasingly a fact of life in this country, fueled by a concerted political attack on universities and independent knowledge producers.
LH: After several decades of gradual development in law, Critical Race Theory has started to make inroads in other disciples and countries. What about the discipline has made it useful in areas outside US law?
VR: I think this is a complicated question about intellectual genealogies and cross pollination among scholars who study race and ethnicity. But the short answer is that good ideas, which critical race theory is full of, are useful across disciplines.
Critical race theory was formalized in legal studies but was interdisciplinary from the start. Kimberley Crenshaw, is clear about the contributions of African American studies to critical race theory. Similarly Delgado and Stefancic point to many influences, including European philosophers, Dr. King, and “Black Power and Chicano movements.”
I’m a sociologist with a joint appointment in African American Studies, disciplines that share some intellectual precursors with critical race theory. For instance, all three fields claim W.E.B. Du Bois as a leading, if not founding, figure. Du Bois is often credited, along with Boas and his students, with forwarding social constructionist perspectives on race in the early 20th century. Du Bois was also a structuralist who placed the genesis of racial inequality in social conditions rather than biological or cultural difference.
Social constructionist perspectives on race are part of critical race theory but also show up across the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. Social construction is now the paradigm. One way that this broad consensus gets discussed is the claim that critical race theory spread. But a different way to think about this process is that many disciplines concluded race is socially constructed because that’s what the data shows. Convergence around a correct idea is how knowledge production is supposed to work.
What critical race theorists did, and this is really comes through in Delgado and Stefancic’s book, is to formalize a set of broadly shared paradigms like structural racism, social construction, and intersectionality into a compelling overarching framework. Critical race theory coupled these areas of scholarly consensus with more controversial (but no less compelling) claims about the permanence of racism, doubts about linear progress, colorblind racism, and a version of standpoint epistemology that privileged the perspective of marginalized scholars. Creating this framework allowed other disciplines to take certain aspects and apply them to problems in their field.
In sociology, structural accounts of racism are common (despite some holdouts).”Race is a social construction” is a mantra so oft repeated that, as my colleague Deadric Williams points out, the implications of race being socially constructed are blunted by methods that continue to treat race as an immutable characteristic. But lots of sociologists who recognize structural racism aren’t critical race theorists.It may be time to begin studying class with the same energy that we devoted to race.
The anti-critical race theory propagandists refuse to recognize the distinction between the so-called spread of critical race theory and the normal cross pollination that happens between fields. They demonize lots of work by scholars that who do not consider themselves critical race theorists but may recognize aspects of the framework—such as social construction or structural racism—as valid.
AM: My fields are English studies broadly, rhetoric and writing studies specifically. I find a number of CRT’s insights helpful, particularly from the perspective of a Humanities-informed thinker, who cares very much about story and storytelling. As Richard has said: “Stories are the oldest, most primordial meeting ground in human experience” (“Storytelling” 2438) “Stories humanize us” (2440). There are so many choice Richard Delgado quotes on storytelling!
CRT contributes not only a storytelling methodology but also a pedagogy–tools by which to do accessible research and tools to accessibly teach. As a rhetoric scholar I have studied various styles of legal storytelling by CRT counterstory exemplars Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and Patricia J. Williams. Each has approached their method informed by the tenets of CRT, but their work is written in accessible styles that invite a multiplicity of audiences into the CRT conversation. We all learn best by story and that is exactly what these CRT scholars accomplish.
Here are my recommendations:
Derrick Bell, And We Are Not Saved (1987)
Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (1991)
Derrick Bell Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992)
Richard Delgado, The Rodrigo Chronicles (1995)
Patricia J. Williams, Giving a Damn: Racism, Romance and Gone with the Wind (2021)
People who read this work–much of it presented as story–will learn very complex CRT concepts as the authors rigorously cite case precedent, court rulings, and other researched literatures (including literary literature!), data/statistics, etc. The first chapter of And We Are Not Saved instructs on one of the most inaccessible documents known to this country: The Constitution!
But it does so through a fantastical sci-fi time-travel narrative involving the “founding father” framers of the Constitution and a composite character of Bell’s own creation: Geneva Crenshaw. It is engaging work, yet rigorously researched (just look at the end notes!) and most importantly functions as what I qualify and promote as an accessible introductory method for nearly all audiences to CRT.
What’s more, this work, from a writing studies perspective, is reproducible. You can teach the writing of counterstories to students/learners, and you can publish counterstories professionally–Bell, Delgado, Williams; even I’m proof of that!
RD: I’ve been especially intrigued by how CRT has been taken up by so many writers and researchers in the field of Education, even outside the U.S. in countries such as England. Educators use CRT to understand hierarchy in schools, the Western canon, school discipline, and the attack on ethnic studies.
K-12 teachers and librarians who embrace it have come under even fiercer attack than those who teach it at the college or graduate level. My impression is that English ed-crits are encountering even stronger pushback than their counterparts here. I think the educational system there is even more traditional and class-bound than the one here.
LH: Some have suggested that it is time for critical race theory to disband and begin studying class, not race. Do you agree?
RD: I do. Critical race theory has made great contributions to the study of race and racism. But the scholarly movement seems played out and is producing fewer and fewer breakthroughs on the order of Derrick Bell’s or Kim Crenshaw’s early work. The Supreme Court is almost sure to abolish affirmative action in higher education and, maybe, anywhere else. It may be time to begin studying class with the same energy that we devoted to race.
AM: Yes, class analysis is important. There’s no doubt about that. I remain convinced, however, that race critical thought (not just CRT alone) provides an important tool for comprehending the dynamics of the United States, both domestically and internationally. I still find it deeply intriguing that CRT helps us better understand how racial interests (including whiteness as a property claim) can trump economic self-interest.What we know about the liberal establishment in this country is its self-interest in whiteness, so until that is no longer a central interest and form of capital so much so that access to it is determined by the courts, then I think race stays central as a concern.
The split from critical legal studies (CLS)–and circling back to meaningfully study and remember why this split happened in the late 1980s–is a helpful way to distinguish CRT as a distinct disciplinary perspective. To elaborate and illustrate for those less familiar with this historic moment, Richard, I think your words from “Liberal McCarthyism” are sound advice and assessment of that moment and why race is still a central concern: “One lesson that emerges is that placing excessive reliance on the liberal establishment can sometimes be a serious error. That establishment primarily looks after its own interests, not yours and mine” (1510).
What we know about the liberal establishment in this country is its self-interest in whiteness, so until that is no longer a central interest and form of capital so much so that access to it is determined by the courts, then I think race stays central as a concern–at least for me.
VR: To quote Stuart Hall, “race is the modality in which class is lived.” Given this, one can’t study class well without considering race. Poverty (and privilege) are shaped by structural racism in the United States. And moving up the class hierarchy provides buffers against some hardships for Black Americans. But Black people nonetheless die earlier deaths at every income level because of the stresses imposed by structural racism.
And highly educated Black folks report more experiences with discrimination. Early critical race work didn’t deny the importance of class but critiqued how some leftist scholars ignored how race and gender shaped class. The experience of poverty (or plenty) isn’t felt uniformly, and the very possibility of social mobility is enabled or constrained by race.
Critical race theory—especially intersectionality—has always incorporated some understanding of class. Intersectionality was formulated as a way to talk about (among other things) poor women of color’s distinct experiences with social services. In Mapping the Margins, Crenshaw shows that poor women of color seeing help escaping domestic violence actually had a fundamentally different experience with women’s shelters.
These shelters were an important feminist innovation that allowed women a refuge from abuse. But English-only rules and all-white governing boards showed these shelters were often implicitly designed for white women.
Lots of subsequent work across the social sciences shows that class is racialized. In my own work, I’ve argued that the organizations that provide mobility opportunities in the United States, such as schools and workplaces, tend to fundamentally disadvantage people of color. My focus is on race because many still treat these organizations as race-neutral until proven otherwise, even as they recognize them as engines of economic opportunity.
I do think there’s another potential question though in whether the name, the brand of “Critical Race Theory” should remain or disband/rebrand, especially in light of the Rufo tweet and vow to turn the brand “toxic” and that is altogether another sort of question to address that we could speak to if you want to devote any time or space to that, Richard. I have some thoughts on that, but I don’t know if you want to go that route here in this roundtable.
LH: What advice do you have for young people contemplating graduate studies or law from a left perspective?
VR: I’m reluctant to provide unsolicited advice because the landscape of higher education is changing quickly, and the profession is different than when I entered graduate school. Tenure track lines are disappearing as the result of long-standing casualization of academic labor. Right-wing legislators recognize that independent knowledge producers oppose their authoritarian project. So, they are attacking the few remaining job protections, undermining academic freedom and free speech, and attempting to remake the curriculum. These same states are often defunding higher education relative to historic state contributions.
These are terrible developments for democracy, people interested in evidence based policy, and really anyone who thinks learning things is good. I don’t know the best way to navigate this aside from resisting collectively, organizing inside and outside of the workplace, and refusing to sacrifice one’s integrity. The work of researching, writing, and teaching is incredibly rewarding and the right is trying to do is destroy these sense that this kind of work has intrinsic value.
I’m heartened by the graduate students who are leading the way in organizing across the country right now. Despite some attempts, my graduate student cohort failed to organize.The work of a CRT scholar can feel isolated and lonely if you are at a graduate or professional program where matters of race and racism are not the concern of faculty in their research or the courses they teach. You’ll find a severe lack of mentorship.
So, if anything, I want advice from these organizers who are fighting for fair wages and better working conditions. How do we make faculty that have some security take the long-term threat seriously?
AM: I suggest that they keep their options open and think about transdisciplinarity. One of the best aspects of my education has been the exploration I have allowed my studies to take me on from an undergraduate degree in the Social Sciences, to graduate degrees in the Humanities, to a dissertation and eventual specialization that incorporates scholarship from the fields of legal studies, sociology and education. This multivalent perspective has pushed me to seek out the work of scholars who I might not have otherwise been aware of if I had just “stayed in my disciplinary lane” through what I was offered in course work alone.
My very first published work, for instance, fully centers the work of Victor’s mentor, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, because as a graduate student it was the work of this sociologist who spoke to me most and gave me the tools I needed to fully understand how to analyze what was happening in my first-year writing classroom. If you keep yourself open in a disciplinary sense you are open in a coalitional sense to finding “your people” in other disciplines.
The work of a CRT scholar can feel isolated and lonely if you are at a graduate or professional program where matters of race and racism are not the concern of faculty in their research or the courses they teach. You’ll find a severe lack of mentorship. But you can find your teachers and mentors in the scholarship, and sometimes, with luck, you can connect with those very scholars who wrote the work that nurtured and sustained you. I’m fortunate to be in community with two of those folks right here in this roundtable.
RD: If you are in your twenties, get the broadest education you can, for as many years as you can afford. Don’t ignore AI or you’ll find yourself replaced by a robot at an awkward stage of your career.
Richard Delgado is John J. Sparkman Chair of Law at the University of Alabama and one of the founders of critical race theory. He is the author (with Jean Stefancic) of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, fourth edition.
Victor Ray is the F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa and a Carr Center Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He is the author of On Critical Race Theory: Why it Matters & Why You Should Care.
Aja Y. Martinez (she/her) is Associate Professor of English at University of North Texas. Aja is author of the multi-award-winning book Counterstory: The Rhetoric and Writing of Critical Race Theory and is co-author, with Robert O. Smith, of several forthcoming titles on the storied histories of CRT.
Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (Fourth Edition) by Richard Delgado is available via NYU Press.